September 25th, 2186. London, EU.
"You’ve got to get out of here."
The world was literally falling apart before her eyes. She struggled to make herself heard over the roar of the Normandy’s engines, the firing of Reaper weapons, and the continuous rumble of advancing tanks and collapsing buildings. "I’m all right, Shepard." 'Please,' her eyes said. 'Take me with you.'
But Shepard was not to be dissuaded. “Don’t argue with me, Liara.”
Garrus gripped her side more firmly as her knees began to buckle. Pain shot up her arm, and her throat burned with the heavy smoke in the air. “You’re not leaving me behind.” They were so close. She had to be there; to be with Shepard until the very end. She’d promised.
Even under that oppressive, smoke-filled sky, Shepard’s eyes were so vibrant; the only specks of green left in that blasted wasteland. A strong hand cupped Liara’s cheek, the rough texture of her gloves brushing tenderly against blue skin. “No matter what happens. You mean everything to me, Liara. You always will.”
This couldn’t be it. She tried to reach out, but the searing pain only made her tears flow more freely. “Shepard – I… I am yours.”
The Commander shuddered even as she smiled, her own eyes filling with tears, when another loud crash had her looking over her shoulder. Through the falling ash, Harbinger could be seen on the other side of the beam, knocking over a five-hundred year old row of houses as though they were made of straw, repositioning itself on its massive legs to get a better line of sight on the advancing Alliance forces.
And at the moment, Liara knew it was all over.
Shepard yelled for them to get going as she ran back down the ramp to join the other soldiers in their mad dash for the Citadel.
Liara was left shaking in Garrus’ grasp while he pulled her back against her will, and as the shuttle bay door began to close, the last thing she saw was a brilliant flash of red light. An ear-splitting blast, like the sound of the planet being wrenched apart, rocked the ship as it took to the skies, but it died away until all that could be heard was the hum of the engines and the labored breathing of her crewmates.
She fell to her knees, hands covering her face. "Shepard."
She had imagined her final moments with Shepard ending in a hundred different ways, many of them tragic, but never like this.
Breathing in sharply, Liara awoke to find herself sprawled face down on a cold metal floor. For a second she thought she must still be in London, that maybe an explosion had rendered her deaf and blind, but the air was clear, if stale, and a distinctive computerized voice was continuing to calmly repeat her name.
She blinked and realized that what at first appeared to be twisted concrete and metal was actually just her office, bathed in a faint blue light. Immediately, she tried to push herself up as the memories came flooding back. Despite the pain in her arm, Liara had only given Doctor Chakwas a few moments to patch her up before limping to her office to be amongst her monitors and data-streams, trying to bolster the lines around London, calling in supply drops to where they were most needed.
Finally getting to one knee, she hissed. Even lifting her arm enough to scan her surroundings with her omni-tool proved to be too much. It hardly mattered. All of the electronic devices in the room were dead anyway: the monitors, the lights, everything. Only her VI seemed to still be functional. It was hovering steadily just over her head, casting the faintest of shadows with its own light.
“Glyph,” she choked out, clinging to the seat of her chair to keep from losing her balance, “Status report.”
If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve described Glyph’s answering tone as gentle, like it was trying to ease her distress for some reason. “The Normandy sustained heavy damage after the activation of the Crucible, Doctor. EDI does not answer my inquiries. Artificial gravity and life-support are now functioning on battery power. All attempts to raise the crew have failed.”
She tried to move her left leg again and this time only barely stopped herself from crying out. Her ankle was definitely twisted. She couldn't remember when that had happened. “Sensors?”
“Main sensors are offline. Visual scans indicate several vessels nearby.”
Liara cradled her aching head for a moment before finally daring to look out the window. Glyph moved from her line of sight and dimmed itself to a ghostly blue, giving her eyes a chance to adjust.
A graveyard, that’s what she was looking at. Barely visible against the blackness of space lay the hulks of what might have been a dozen or even a hundred vessels; the volus dreadnought Kwunu with its distinctive green radiator fins, a turian frigate, a geth cruiser, and an asari battlecruiser Liara didn’t recognize. The latter ship was rotating slowly on its axis, and she swallowed when the far side finally came into view. The starboard fin was completely missing, leaving some fifteen decks exposed to space. She turned away. Not even the aftermath of the Battle for the Citadel had looked so horrible.
Then she scanned the scene again. No Reapers. Not a single one. Had Shepard done it? Was it all truly over? “Glyph. Send out a distress signal.”
“I’m afraid all communications are down, Doctor.”
“What about the ship’s transponder?”
“That is also offline.”
She rubbed her temple. “What is our exact location?”
“The Normandy is currently on a sub-orbital trajectory. Estimated speed: eight point two kilometers-per-second. Altitude, nine-hundred kilometers.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “What?”
“I estimate the Normandy will enter Earth’s atmosphere in approximately thirty-two minutes.”
This was even more serious than she’d thought. “Is anyone piloting the ship?”
“We have to get to the bridge.”
Ignoring the pain, she forced herself off the floor, and using her chair as a prop, pushed herself in the direction of her bed. There was an emergency power conduit along the wall. If she could get her terminals running, she might be able to scan the interior of the ship for life signs. “Do any other sections of the ship still have power?”
“Doctor, you require medical attention.”
Something warm and wet trickled down the side of her head, splattering on the floor. When she rubbed at it her hand came back purple. Blood. She reached for the nightstand, pulling out a pack of medi-gel.
The instant she applied it, the burning sensation in her extremities receded. She tried her foot again, but knew better than to put too much weight on it. It felt lifeless. Definitely better, but it would need to be treated properly - preferably by a real doctor, not one who only held a doctorate in Prothean archaeology.
Still, it would do. Liara bent over to examine the conduit running along the floor. No lights. No power. She did find a helmet though, and quickly slipped it over head, locking it in place with a reassuring click. Who knew what she’d find on the other side of the door?
With slightly more dignity, she limped towards the exit. As expected, the door didn't open automatically. The controls weren’t even glowing red to indicate a lock or malfunction.
Calming herself, Liara stood up straight and surrounded herself in a mass effect field, holding out a hand and touching the surface of the door. Glyph retreated when she sent the power out through her hands and into the seal between the door elements. All she needed was a little leverage -
With a bang, the door shot open, sparks flittering down from above. The sight unveiled made the bile rise in her throat. Glyph’s light illuminated an unrecognizable mass of folded metal and broken glass in every direction. Pipes and hoses hung down from the ceiling, and the floor was wet, possibly from the fire-suppression system. Liara called out, but there was no reply. At least there was no sign of blood. Perhaps some of the crew had survived after all? Perhaps she was the only one left on board?
A short warning tone sounded in her helmet and information scrolled along the bottom of her visor. 'Outside temperature: fifty-eight degrees centigrade.'
A much louder bang followed and the rocking of the ship sent her back against the door jamb, causing the residual static from her mass effect field to discharge harmlessly into the wall. Fortunately, her biotic barrier helped soften the impact this time. “What was that?”
Glyph was back in Liara’s office, looking out the window. “The ship has collided with debris of unknown origin.”
She couldn’t stop herself from looking out there again. A massive piece of armor plating came into view, tumbling slowly end over end. She recognized the angles and the white paint. It was the front half of an Alliance cruiser.
Emblazoned on the starboard side was a large hand-painted flag: blue, white, and black. She recognized that too. This ship used to be the SSV Nairobi, an Alliance cruiser they’d found licking its wounds in a ravine on Parag.
The crew were all from Earth’s East African Federation.
Liara had to look away. She’d last seen the ship on the Citadel only a week ago, just before they left for the Illusive Man's secret base. The crew had painted that flag after the news had come in from Earth; the ship’s namesake city had been completely wiped out by the Reapers. According to Alliance intelligence there wasn’t a human being left alive from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean.
So many lives lost. Yet here she was. Why had she survived when so many hadn't?
Suddenly, Liara remembered something else. “The Citadel. Glyph, is it still out there?”
She slumped against the door jamb. Thirteen million souls, countless more refugees… it was all too much. She had to do something, but what good was a Shadow Broker with no information?
Limping back into her office, Liara followed the line of cables on the floor to a panel behind her servers. She’d never thought to ask exactly where this crawlspace led, but anywhere would probably be better than here. After moving everything aside with the aid of her biotics, she pried open the door. “Glyph?”
Obediently, the drone disappeared down the hole, leaving Liara to herself. Never had she heard a ship be so utterly quiet before. It was unsettling, like being inside a tomb. She tried to clear her thoughts, looking over her shoulder to see the blue of Earth's oceans filling her window as the ship continued its slow, lifeless rotation through space. Earth was still there, and Liara was still alive. She needed to hang on to that. Thankfully, Glyph popped back up more quickly than she expected. “This way, Doctor.”
Liara descended gingerly into the crawlspace. It took ages for her to get on her belly and begin the arduous task of pulling herself forward around cables and over shards of plastic with just her hands. It was even hotter in here than it had been outside her quarters. 'Eighty-three degrees centigrade.' “Goddess. Where is all this heat –“
The Normandy shuddered violently, but Liara was squeezed so tightly she had nothing for the jolt to throw her against. It sounded as though the ship had powered up and then quickly back down again, but in her current predicament there was no way to be sure. She really, really hated crawling through air vents. Fifty-thousand years from now, some alien was going to board the Normandy and discover a dead asari trapped under the floor. “More debris?” she asked her VI.
“No,” Glyph replied from up ahead. “I believe someone is attempting to activate the engines.”
Stuck in a tube approaching a hundred degrees, on board a ship about to crash into the Earth, and that was the best news she’d heard all day.
“-ello? H - lo? Is - one there?”
Liara banged her head against the metal ceiling when she heard that familiar voice calling loudly through her headset. “Tali?”
Another voice said her name at that exact moment. It was Jeff.
Tali's garbled words gradually became clearer. “Liara? Joker? Keelah, I thought we were the only ones left.”
“We?” Liara repeated.
“I’m stuck on deck four with the rest of the engineering crew. It’s getting extremely hot down here.”
“And not the good kind of hot,” a distant male voice quipped. It sounded like Engineer Donnelly.
The ship shook again.
“Stop doing that!” Tali cried.
Joker was offended. “Hey, if I don’t get this ship moving, we’re going to give the people of Earth a flashy new crater to admire. Not that they’d probably notice,” he added under his breath.
“Yeah, well, every time you fire the engines it dumps more heat in here. Ten-seconds at full thrust and the bulkheads will probably start melting.”
“Not to mention the little matter of our gruesome deaths,” engineer Daniels chipped in.
The line went silent. “Well… uh… shit.”
“What about the maneuvering thrusters?” Liara asked.
“It doesn't matter what you use," Tali replied. "Anything that generates heat just seems to dump it directly into engineering. And without some way to get rid of it, we can’t get in there to fix the problem.”
Liara stopped crawling.
“Ideas would be nice,” Joker said into the silence.
The ship shook twice in rapid succession.
“Hey!” Tali cried out again.
“Don't look at me!” the pilot yelled back.
The groaning of metal was followed by a gentle rumble, similar to the way the Normandy shook whenever she flew through a dense atmosphere, but after just a few seconds it subsided.
“What the hell was that?”
“I believe something was firing at the ship, Doctor,” Glyph replied. “The sounds appear to be coming from deck five.”
“Reapers?” Tali asked.
“Nah. If the Reapers were firing on us, we’d all be dust by now,” Joker replied.
Liara began hauling herself forward again. “How long before we enter the Earth’s atmosphere?”
“Just under twenty-five minutes, Doc.”
“Okay, I’m going to see what that was,” she said, nodding at Glyph who flew on ahead, illuminating her path.
“Liara -" Tali began.
She cut the quarian off. There was no time to think about… well, there just wasn't time. “People might be trapped on the other decks. I’m not leaving without at least looking for them.”
“I know. I just… good luck. If we can’t fix the problem by the time we hit the atmosphere, we’ll get to the escape pods, and you can try to land the ship without us, Joker. That is... if you want.”
The pilot didn’t reply. He had a choice between saving himself and leaving any trapped crew members behind, and landing the ship and probably incinerating them.
“We’re all going to make it out of here," Liara said, hoping she sounded more convincing than she felt. "Just do what you can, everyone.”
Murmurs of assent filled her commlink.
She grunted as she squeezed through a particularly narrow point, her arm muscles burning under the strain of pulling. “Would it have killed the Illusive Man to put stairways on this ship?”
Thankfully, Glyph was able to lead her to one of the proper maintenance tubes, which made getting around quite a bit faster and slightly less agonizing. The heads-up display in her helmet kept her appraised of the rising heat as they passed close to engineering, but once below deck four the temperature quickly returned to something approaching normal. The strange rumbles continued however, though Joker disclaimed any responsibility for them.
Finally, she crawled out into the ship's shuttlebay, not too shocked to find the whole place was a mess. Support beams from the ceiling had crushed the M-44 Hammerhead and one of the shuttles while most of the ship's stores lay scattered in crates across the floor.
In the middle of the bay was a solitary shuttle, its windows cracked, and its starboard hull charred, perhaps from fire. For a moment she’d thought it must’ve been knocked off its mount and had its front-end smashed in by something, but its engines were sputtering and the forward gun port was glowing red hot.
She hobbled towards it. Behind the shuttle stood the bay's heavy blue forcefield, protecting the entire deck from the vacuum of space. She stopped in her tracks upon realizing that the door had not been opened per-se. It was in fact no longer there, instead the twisted piece of metal was floating out in space just a few meters below the bow.
"Looks like we have visitors," Liara said into her receiver as she approached the less damaged side of the shuttle. She pressed her helmet to the windscreen, but it was impossible to see inside.
"Tell them we charge fifty credits per hour for parking," Joker said through her headset.
"They're good guys, I hope?" Tali asked.
Liara nodded. "It's an Alliance shuttle." The markings along the side were white and green. "Fifth fleet, I think."
Joker let out a breath. "Whew, I was actually kind of worried it really was the Reapers." He paused. "Wait. Husks can't fly shuttles, can they?"
Liara raised her hand, a biotic field encircling her, just on the off-chance that two-dozen husks were about to come charging out of it or something.
With a piercing shriek of metal on metal, the shuttle's door opened and six shell-shocked teenagers in Alliance combat suits came stumbling out. They held up their hands before Liara quickly lowered hers, allowing the field to dissipate. “Who are you?” she asked.
A nervous young woman stepped forward and saluted, “Ensign Rodriquez, 103rd Marine Division, ma'am.”
“Christ, put your hand down, Rodriquez,” someone called from inside the shuttle. Liara had only met her maybe three times in her life, but when a heavily tattooed woman strode confidently out of the ship, she knew instantly who it was. “Hey,” Jack said easily, stretching her arms over her head. “Sorry about the door.” She gestured over her shoulder, then shrugged. “I guess.”
Another familiar face popped out. It was Steve Cortez, right arm bandaged and his skin looking a little ashen. “Doctor T’Soni,” he said, leaning heavily against the hull. “Sorry about that. The ship wasn’t accepting my access codes. It was, erm, suggested that I shoot my way in.”
Joker's voice came over the commlink. "Hey, was that Jack? Is she tearing the ship apart again?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Hey, Jerk, I mean, Jeff.”
“Wow. Is the swear jar full or something?”
“Yeah, well, fuck you too." The students laughed.
Liara shook her head. “I’m glad you could make it, but what are all of you doing here?”
Cortez straightened himself, “I was ferrying supplies to the Southwark line, keeping a constant lock on the Normandy during the battle. When the Crucible fired, suddenly the Reapers just disintegrated. Took out my shuttle too. Fortunately, I found this one and went looking for you.”
“And I saw Cortez flying over my position, so I flagged him down,” Jack added.
“What she means is, she hit my shuttle with a series of flares, then got on the radio and called me an asshole until I landed."
Jack shrugged again. “Same thing.”
“The Reapers… disintegrated?” Tali repeated.
“Hey, Tali," Jack replied. "Yeah. Fuckin’ craziest thing.”
“They just blew away like they were made of dust or something,” Rodriquez added, earning nods from the other students.
Liara didn’t know what to say. It felt like she was dreaming. Somehow, they'd actually done it. They’d stopped a cycle that had lasted a million years.
"We appreciate you looking for us," Tali was saying.
"Yeah, well, Shepard pulled my ass out of the fire a couple of times," Jack replied. Then she looked around the bay. "Where is she, anyway?"
The way Liara's face dropped must've clued her in, because Jack's expression immediately turned sour.
That horrible ache in her stomach returned with a vengeance. Every second that Shepard wasn't on her mind felt like a betrayal. "I don't know where she is... but we can't worry about that now. There isn’t much time." Liara let out a breath as she poked her head inside the shuttle. Some of the consoles looked as though they had recently been on fire. It didn’t seem particularly flyable, let alone safe. “Anyone else in there?”
Someone tapped her on the back, and Liara found herself face to face with Kasumi Goto. “Hey, Doc.”
Joker came in over the comm again. "Kasumi? Jeez, you got anyone else in there? A starbase repair team perhaps?"
"No. Sorry. It's just me."
"Oh, so you just wanted to join us for our inevitable fiery demise then?"
Kasumi smiled. "Wouldn't miss it. And, um, sorry about the door."
Liara interrupted Joker's inevitable follow up question. The digital timer in her helmet was still counting down. "Do any of you know about heat-dispersal systems?"
Jack's group only looked at each other nervously.
Cortez opened his mouth only to be surprised into silence when the elevator door blew off its hinges. Liara gaped when the familiar silhouette of Ashley Williams appeared through the smoke.
“Yikes,” the Spectre said, pulling off her helmet and running a hand through her hair. “I’m not cleaning this up.”
One of the male students elbowed another. “Holy crap, I think that’s the other Spectre. What a fox.” Jack cuffed him on the ear.
Fortunately, Ashley didn’t notice. She called out from halfway across the bay, “Hey, Doctor. Friends of yours?”
Joker broke in before Liara could respond. "Um, hello? Not to interrupt this little family reunion, but impending fiery death: t-minus sixteen minutes and counting."
"Right," she said, pointing to the storage lockers which were thankfully still bolted to the wall and relatively undamaged. "Everyone grab a helmet. Ashley, follow me."
After Ashley forced the door to engineering - with a crowbar instead of a grenade this time - Liara’s suit sounded another warning, 'Temperature exceeding 120 degrees centigrade.' Another fifty degrees and everyone would have no choice but to clear out.
Through the intense light, Liara could see two people in Alliance spacesuits tapping feverishly at their control panels. Tali was standing directly in front of the eezo core, which was now glowing a rather terrifying shade of orange. All that protected everyone in the room from instant incineration was another forcefield, and clearly even that line of defense wasn’t doing a great job.
"Any change in status?" Liara asked, shielding her eyes with her arm. Her visor detected several large open doors on the far side of the core leading into the blackness of space. She’d never seen those before.
"No,” Tali replied, too busy with her omni-tool to look back at her. “I can’t get the cooling system to respond, and it’s too hot to fix manually.”
"What's with the open doors?"
"They're drydock access ports. I was hoping to radiate some of the core’s extra heat into space. It's not really helping though."
“There’s nothing you can do?” Ashley asked.
Engineer Adams' muffled voice sounded from inside the maintenance tube over their heads, "Well, normally we could dump emergency coolant in there and then expel it through the doors, but that's one of the roughly six-hundred systems that are down at the moment."
Tali gripped the handrail more tightly. "Suggestions would be really nice right about now."
Ashley glanced at Liara, a frown visible even through her helmet. “What do you think, Adams? You’re the XO here.”
His voice was still muffled. Much like Ashley, he must’ve had a malfunctioning comm unit. “Being stuck in a tube, I’m not really in a position to command much of anything.” There was a loud bang followed by a curse. “Blasted Elkos Combine garbage.”
“I guess it’s your call then, Ashley,” Liara offered. She was the highest ranking officer on board after all.
Ashley shook her head. “I, er, never actually trained for starship command at the academy. Not that that really matters right now. We’ve only got twelve minutes…”
The asari swallowed and nodded. Their options were few. Shepard would want them to live, that was all she was certain of. “Cortez? Is that shuttle still operational?"
It was Jack who answered. “Why?”
“We're going to have to abandon ship.”
A loud snort came though her comm. “Fuck that.”
“Look, I know fuck all about engines, ok? But can’t you just dump some water on it or something? I’ve seen them do it on freighters before.”
Tali’s ghostly white eyes blinked from behind her mask. “Hmm. No… no, the Normandy doesn't carry that much water. It wouldn’t be enough."
Liara looked to the nearest engineering console. The core was reading a temperature so high that at first she thought the monitor must’ve been malfunctioning, and on the rightmost display was a map of the life-support systems alongside the general layout of the deck and the shuttlebay immediately below it. She’d forgotten that engineering and the shuttlebay shared the two decks between them. Why you could even see -
Suddenly, a thought came to her and she quickly made her way to the set of unopened doors leading back to the elevator, prying them open one by one. “Jack?”
Once the second door was opened and locked in place, she limped over to the thick glass windows overlooking the shuttlebay. “Tell your students to start clearing the deck.”
Jack was staring back up at her. “Huh?”
“Throw everything that isn’t bolted down out into space.”
“What’s the big plan?” Ashley asked over Jack’s acknowledgment, following Liara out into the hall. The students were already using their biotics to enthusiastically hurl crates out into the void, and they both watched surprised as Jack proceeded to lift Cortez’s shuttle all by herself.
“We don’t have water,” Liara replied, the blue of Earth’s oceans looming ever closer beyond the open door, “but what we will have soon is air.”
Ashley grinned as understanding dawned on her. The shuttlebay faced forward. All they needed was a path from the bay to the drive core for the air to follow, and the atmosphere would provide the rest. In fact, Liara realized, it was not unlike the way the Shadow Broker’s ship cooled its own engines.
“Not even biotics will break this glass though,” Ashley said.
Jack had the shuttle over her head now, just about ready to send it flying. Its forward gun port was still trailing wisps of black smoke. “Jack! Hold up.”
“Make it quick,” she grunted.
Liara glanced at Ashley. “Ever fire a mass accelerator cannon indoors before?”
Ashley’s grin grew wider.
Liara and Jack stood at the very edge of the shuttlebay, white clouds blocking their view of the rapidly approaching surface. Minutes ago, they had formed a great biotic shell in front of them in order to reinforce the shuttlebay’s own forcefield and keep the searing heat of reentry from baking them all alive. The few remains of the door were long gone, detached and disposed of with the help of Spectre Williams. White hot flames licked the exterior of the ship for several minutes before disappearing as the vessel slowed. Soon it would be time to see if Liara’s plan was going to get everyone killed or not.
Behind them, against the walls, stood Jack’s students, sheltering both themselves and the non-biotics. They had their fields angled to help direct the torrent of air into engineering. All the small tools and bits of plastic that had gone unnoticed were rattling against the floor, and there was the distinct danger of them being swept up into engineering through the line of broken windows once Liara and Jack started letting the outside air in. Thankfully, the Normandy had a sturdy warship’s drive core, not a freighter’s. It could take a few hard knocks.
"Six-thousand!” Joker called out, as the ship continued to shake violently. “Fifty-nine-hundred -"
Liara nodded at Jack, who wasn’t even breaking a sweat. "Ready?"
A grim nod was her only response.
“Do it, Ashley.”
From her place against the wall, Ashley keyed in a series of codes on her omni-tool. All at once, Liara was pressed back by the immense increase of pressure as the forcefield went offline. Only Jack’s presence kept her upright. “Okay,” she said to her. “Here were go.”
Immediately, the wind kicked up as they slowly let the bubble shrink until there was just a few feet of breathing room between them. Tali was glued to the floor between their feet, refusing to look at anything but her own omni-tool as it fed her a constant stream of data from engineering. Liara understood why. Once through the clouds, rolling green hills and piles of rubble that had once been cities could be seen rushing by at a dizzying rate. It was nothing less than terrifying.
Also, there was the fact that the Normandy’s underside was clearly scarred from battle damage. She hoped the engines had fared better.
“Core temperature dropping!” Tali yelled.
Joker was almost impossible to hear now that the rush of air drowned out everything else. It reminded Liara of walking along the outside of the Shadow Broker’s ship on Hagalaz, only here it was as fine a day as anyone could ask for. "F - ring main - gines -"
The Normandy lurched, knocking Liara to her knees. Jack remained standing, helping her up with one hand. The ship yawed from side to side as the engines made the most horrible sound and shook so badly it felt like Liara’s teeth were going to fall out. There was a blue flash as the mass effect field engaged and suddenly all the interior lights came on.
The rocking ceased. “Two-thousand,” Joker called out, his voice strained. Some of the students started to cheer, at least until Jack ordered them to shut their mouths.
For several long seconds, the ship seemed to sail towards the ground with all the inevitability of a dart, but just when she thought they had failed after all, the engines fully powered up and their descent slowed.
"Mass effect field at maximum."
“Core temperature steady!” Tali called out.
Another lurch left the ship hanging in mid-air for a moment. Then, before everyone’s astonished eyes, the Normandy descended and touched gently down on the grassy plain just as it had done a hundred times before.
"Well, I'll be fucked," Jack said breathlessly, letting go of Liara's hand. “We’re not dead.”
A loud whoop filled her comm, before Joker coughed and settled himself. "All right, taking non-essential systems off-line. Venting the core."
Loud exhaust fans kicked in as their biotic field disappeared, and Tali could only stare up at Liara for a long moment, her face, as always, unreadable behind her mask. Then she suddenly jumped up and hugged the asari tightly.
Finally allowing herself to breathe, Liara patted Tali’s back. "You okay?"
She nodded against Liara's shoulder. "Thanks to you."
Liara found herself blushing and Jack laughed at them both.
"Shepard would be proud.”
Liara shut her eyes and let out a deep breath.
"We'll find a way to get back up there," Tali said when she finally pulled back. “We’ll find her… somehow.”
It was hard to share the quarian’s optimism. Whatever had happened on the Citadel, Shepard was at ground zero, right in the thick of it. "You really think there's any hope?"
She nodded. "I don't know what happened, but if anyone could survive all that, it's Commander Shepard."
“Hell yeah she could,” Jack said, looking out over the grassy hills dotted with trees. “Woman’s fucking invincible.”
September 8th, 2186
SSV Normandy, Gemini Sigma Cluster
It was so easy to lose herself in her work. Millions of data feeds streaming in from a thousand worlds: planets under attack, vessels reported missing, there was never a break. No matter the hour, the war never ceased, and every moment she spent away from her data feeds might mean another hundred people left behind here, another family torn apart there.
The galaxy couldn’t afford for her to be caught napping when a Reaper fleet invaded a new system or when Cerberus attacked some seemingly unimportant outpost.
Everyone needed her at her best. The Broker’s resources needed to be used to their fullest power and with the greatest possible efficiency, otherwise what right had she to even be here?
Liara had been so busy. Coordinating quick yet safe travel for many of the scientists assigned to the Crucible would be a monumental task even if half the systems in the galaxy hadn’t already been lost to the Reapers. Many of the scientists were ex-Cerberus, and not a few had large bounties on their heads from criminal organizations and even planetary governments. Sending wanted persons through the wrong system might not just result in their deaths, it could seriously threaten the entire project.
‘Hazard: contact lost with Sigma Octantis colony. SSV Kursk dispatched. No communications received since 8.22.86. Presumed destroyed. All ships advised to avoid system indefinitely.’
In addition, there was the unending torrent of bad news; a constant stream of intel that would wear down the hardest of hearts. However, when the bad news stopped, well, that was even worse.
Still, even though Liara spent most of her days – or what passed for days on a starship - hunched over her terminal, she wasn’t so far gone that she would miss her door opening and someone entering her quarters.
Her eyes darted to the door to find Shepard, her hair rather more disheveled than usual, stepping inside with none of her usual grace. She looked exhausted, and clearly had made no attempt to hide the bags under her eyes, but then everyone on the ship looked that way as of late, even Javik.
Usually, the Commander would stop by Glyph's terminal first to have it scan any fragments of tech she'd picked up planetside. This time however, she kept right on walking, past Glyph, past Liara, until she was crawling on top of the covers of Liara’s bed.
Liara continued to watch from the corner of her eye. Half a minute ticked by and Shepard was still lying there, staring at nothing.
She glanced back at her screen. ‘0200 hours.’ Shepard should've been asleep ages ago. Something was definitely wrong.
‘Of course things are wrong,’ she chided herself. A million things were wrong.
And still, the reports kept flooding in: ‘Stellar Flare warning: Starhome. Sustained radiation levels from primary expected to exceed safe limit for the next solar year.’ That was a problem. Starhome was one of the few colonies near Earth still accepting refugees. She tapped at her keyboard. ‘It never rains but it pours.’
She dispatched inquires to the few agents she still had beyond the Arcturus Relay. Maybe they could redirect some freighters, or shuttles, or anything. Of course, that still left the question; even if everyone could be evacuated, where could they possibly go?
Another minute passed and she noted that Shepard was still lying on her bed. Somewhat reluctantly, she stepped back from her terminal. Even while motionless or invisible, Glyph was always awake. It never failed to let her know when anything required her immediate attention.
Besides, Shepard was important too. More important than all this equipment, and, if Liara was honest, more important than herself.
She stepped over to the bed. When Shepard didn't move, Liara took off her gloves and quietly crawled up on her hands and knees until they were lying side by side. She gave Shepard a tentative smile, and was more than a little relieved when the Commander smiled back.
It was still surprising when Shepard finally spoke. Her voice was so unusually timid, “Am I doing the right thing?”
It wasn’t a question Liara ever expected to be asked. The Commander made a career out of difficult decisions: from her time in a street gang on Earth, to Virmire, to working alongside Cerberus. It was hard to imagine anyone making so many decisions without changing inside somehow, losing their compassion, the better parts of their human nature; but Shepard hadn't. Liara placed a hand on the woman’s bicep. “What do you mean?”
Wordlessly, Shepard handed her a datapad. Scrolling up the screen was a report from Alliance intelligence. Liara had seen it already, but the final lines still gave her chills, 'Intelligence estimates Reaper forces are eliminating approximately 1.86 million humans per day. In combination with battlefield deaths, disease, and famine, this pace will result in the complete depopulation of Earth within a decade.'
“They’re buying us time with their lives.”
She didn't know what to say to that. It was true, after all.
“Meanwhile, we just spent an entire day tracking down that missing cruiser. Every day we spend out here, another two million die. And that’s just on Earth.”
The Commander gave no sign that she’d even heard her. Her gaze was focused on the far wall.
“That one ship could be what tips the balance in our favor,” Liara said.
Unsure green eyes finally met hers again. “You really think that.”
Liara nodded. Inwardly, she had all the doubts in the world, but it was easier to try to reassure others than it was to reassure herself. “Maybe that ship cuts a path for the Normandy. Maybe it draws fire from the ground forces. Maybe it takes a hit meant for the Crucible. I don’t know. There’s no way to know. But we only have one chance at this, Shepard. Every ship counts.”
The woman in her bed sighed, but eventually nodded. She still looked unsure, but at least her eyes no longer had that unsettling faraway look.
Pulling Shepard to her, Liara kissed the top of her head as the Commander buried herself in her neck. Shepard's hair smelled crisp and clean. She did love her showers. “Comfortable?” Liara asked when Shepard didn’t pull away.
“Very,” she murmured into her skin.
Liara hummed in response. Holding onto Shepard was like holding on to life; her heart-beat so quickly, and her skin was so warm. Compared to the asari, humans were so vibrant, so impulsive, so... short lived. She'd give anything to be able to protect this one from what lay ahead. “Glyph?”
The drone moved into her line of sight, but only came as close as the foot of the bed. She wondered where it had learned such propriety from. “Yes, Doctor?”
“Could you turn off the lights, please?”
“Of course.” Gradually, the entire room darkened, each monitor turning off one by one before the overhead lights dimmed into nonexistence. “Goodnight, Doctor.” And then Glyph was gone too. It was just her and Shepard illuminated dimly by the blue fire emitted by the Normandy as it traveled well beyond the speed of light, flickering in through the windows.
Shepard snuggled closer. “Yes.”
Liara reached behind Shepard’s back to gently rub her shoulder. Like the rest of her, the muscles there were strong.
The woman sighed happily and kissed her collar bone. Liara hadn't even noticed Shepard unzipping the top of her uniform. No wonder she was so skilled at infiltration. “I wasn’t interrupting anything, I hope?”
Reports no doubt continued to stream in: ship manifests, Reaper sightings, industrial output estimates. It could wait. Shepard needed her attention now. And if it wasn't for this damned war, she'd be more than happy to move into the Commander's quarters and provide that attention on a more frequent basis. "Nope."
“Okay," the woman in her arms said, not really sounding like she believed her.
Liara ran a hand through the Commander's red hair, and she could feel Shepard smiling against her chest.
"You have a thing for hair, don't you?"
"Says the woman with her face pressed against my breasts."
Shepard laughed and kissed each one, which wasn't really all that erotic considering Liara still had her uniform on. "I do like them though."
“Well, it was my goal all along to seduce you with my asari charms, and my Shadow Broker resources. I'm glad to see I succeeded.”
Shepard pulled back and grinned, her eyes sparkling. “For all you know, maybe there’s another Broker out there, one so shadowy that not even you know about her.”
“Mmhmm," Shepard replied, returning to rest her head under Liara's chin. "She might even be right under your very nose."
The asari smiled, ruffling Shepard's hair. At that moment, it occurred to her that she was being given an all too brief glimpse of what life with Shepard might be like once the war was over; if, indeed, they lived to see such a time. She hugged the woman close.
Shepard continued, “And all this time she was manipulating you to fall in love with her.”
“And out of all the asari in the galaxy, she chose me, huh?”
"It must've been a hard choice. I've seen the way she looks at the other asari, and the way those asari look back at her." She was thinking specifically about Shiala, the woman they had rescued on Noveria, and the legions of adoring fans Shepard had amassed after making an appearance at the Arena. Goddess, the way they threw themselves at her...
“Well, she’s incredibly intelligent, and dashing, and beautiful,” Shepard continued. “So that's to be expected. Or, um... so I’ve heard.”
Liara chuckled. “She is certainly all those things to me… and more.”
She felt a soft kiss on her neck. “Liara.”
“Although…” she paused, smiling when the kissing suddenly stopped. “I did have to buy that VI for her because she kept forgetting to feed her fish.”
Sheepish green eyes met hers again. “I bet she’s eternally grateful for that.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah.” Shepard kissed her again on the neck, making her way up to Liara’s ear. It was her weakness. “How much would one of those VI’s cost anyway? Theoretically speaking.”
Liara sighed with pleasure. “I think five years of groveling is a fair price.”
“Five years, huh?”
She nodded gravely.
“Should I write up a contract?”
“For who?” Liara asked, smiling again.
“For, uh, me…” Shepard sighed. “Yeah. Guess I’m pretty bad at roleplaying, huh?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve heard you play a very convincing Allison Gunn.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Shepard groaned, curling back under Liara’s chin.
She continued stroking the woman’s hair. It had always been an effective way of getting her to relax. “I’m surprised no one recognized you.”
“Hock certainly did. The rest were probably just being polite.”
Liara hummed. “Fortunately, you don’t have to play the role of a hero. That seems to come naturally to you.”
Shepard huffed. “I’m happy just being plain-old Shepard, as long as I can go to sleep like this every night.”
Liara kissed her. "I love you more than I'll ever be able to say." ‘Even if we both should live a thousand years.’
This time Shepard sighed happily. “I’m all yours, Liara. For however long we have left.”
Liara hugged her bondmate more tightly and said nothing about tears brimming in her eyes.
September 26th, 2186
SSV Normandy, 50 kilometers west of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
She knew from experience that it wouldn't go away; that horrible absent feeling stretching from her throat to the very center of her being was just as strong now as it had been two years ago. So much had happened since then, yet suddenly it was like she was looking out the viewport of that escape pod again, watching the wreck of the Normandy being torn apart.
The nights she had spent alone mourning Shepard’s loss felt as though they'd never ended. Only this time, there was no work to throw herself into, no ancient enemy to direct all her grief and rage into fighting.
If anything, with the Reapers destroyed, it was a time for celebration, but she had no appetite for it. It was a feeling the entire crew seemed to share. They were grateful to come away with so few causalities, but Shepard's uncertain fate hung over everyone's spirits like a shroud. No one spoke her name, but it was clear that the Commander was on everyone's mind.
And, of course, everyone tiptoed around Liara - not that she really blamed them. She was sure she made for lousy company lately. It was part of the reason she was outside now, sitting on a small chair by herself in front a fire, her back to the ship, and an array of damaged components littering the ground all around her.
She stared blankly at her datapad, absently swiping through a long list of her Shadow Broker contacts. Not a single one of them was transmitting. Once in a while she’d tap the connection button on a random individual's name, an orange disk would appear, spin for a few seconds, before finally sounding a familiar tone, indicating a connection failure.
That was the only type of response she had gotten in past twelve hours, and with the Normandy's comm-systems currently without power, it was likely to be the only response she'd ever get. Frustrated, she dropped the pad onto her lap and returned to poking her campfire with a bent piece of scrap metal. That too wasn’t necessary, the fire came from a small black metal disk - part of an Alliance survival kit - but it gave her something to do.
The sun had only just slipped beneath the tree-covered hills, leaving the thin silver crescent of Luna hanging low in the sky. She'd heard that just a few months ago the lights on the dark side kept the moon visible no matter its phase. Now there were no lights, no cities, no people. As far as she knew, Luna was as dead as it had been in the billions of years before humans first took to the stars.
She watched in silence as the moon was soon lost beneath the dark of an all-consuming cloud bank. Just a few stars could be seen now, frequently overpowered by the fireballs streaking across the sky in every direction. It was like watching the great winter meteor shower on Thessia, only these were ships, or parts of ships, or parts of the Citadel, she couldn't tell.
The wind picked up, causing the tall, rustling grass to brush against her legs.
There came a deep rumble from behind, and the hills were briefly lit by flashes of lightning. It was funny. The Reapers destroyed every civilization they touched, but there were some things even they could not change. On those long dead worlds scattered throughout the galaxy, the winds still blew, the waves still crashed on the shores, and the rains still fell.
She picked up her datapad and tried scanning the horizon for signals again. The display presented her with a view of the unobstructed sky, littered with hundreds of tiny moving dots, most of them tagged with phrases like 'unknown debris,' or 'possible starship.' They all seemed to move in regular orbits around the planet. Nothing moved as a starship would.
It came as a surprise when something larger than any dreadnought came into view over the north-western hill. It was big. Very big. Her pad estimated forty kilometers in length. It could only be one thing. Seconds later, the scanner beeped again. Another large object, roughly the same length came into view. Then another. And another. And finally, another. ‘Goddess…’ Liara's heart sank in her chest. It was the Citadel, its wards separated and tumbling on their own across the sky, soon to be lost again behind the clouds as it continued in its orbit. The image was too small and fuzzy to see much, but some of wards were trailed by long clouds of debris while others showed signs of fire.
She quickly entered the standard Citadel approach hail, but seconds passed by and there was no response. She shouldn’t have expected any. The pad was tied to the Normandy's systems. Without them, it could barely communicate to something a hundred meters away, let alone a hundred kilometers.
Still she tried, even as she was forced to wipe away raindrops with the palm of her hand. The pad was picking up faint transmissions, but where they were coming from was beyond its ability to discern. The signals could just as easily be coming from nearby cities.
And then, mere seconds after it had appeared, the last of the wards disappeared from sight, lost behind the advancing clouds.
Liara shuddered as the rain kept falling. How could anyone survive a blast strong enough to rip the Citadel apart?
She didn't know what was worse: seeing Shepard's body lying cold and mangled inside a coffin on the Broker's base on Alingon, or the prospect of her being forever lost up there, never to be seen again.
It was impossible to hold it in anymore. She wept. She wept for Shepard. She wept for Thessia. She wept for all of her missing friends. And she wept for herself, for living to see the deaths of so many.
She turned her eyes to the heavens and let out an agonized scream. Her heart pounded in her chest, and it felt like she might drown or suffocate, or both. Thanks to Shepard, life would go one, but what had Liara left to live for?
Lost in her grief, it took her some time to realize that the rain was no longer falling on her despite the incessant roar of the downpour. She wiped her eyes, confused by the sight of raindrops bouncing off a biotic barrier.
It was a shock to see Jack just standing there a few meters away, hand raised about shoulder high, maintaining the barrier as easily as one might hold an umbrella. "You okay?" she asked.
Liara shut her eyes and sighed, thankful that the rain masked her tears even if no one would’ve been fooled. She nodded slightly, which seemed enough to placate the woman.
Jack turned over a nearby chair, draining it of water before sitting down. Not for an instant did the surrounding biotic shield falter. It was obvious why Cerberus had wanted her so badly.
Composing herself was difficult. Liara opened and closed her fists a few times, breathing deeply in and out until she felt at least slightly more settled. Jack either didn't notice, or was skilled at pretending like she didn't notice.
"Kasumi was asking for you," she said, still holding the barrier even as she made herself comfortable.
Jack rolled her shoulders and grunted. "Yeah.” As always, her expression was difficult to read. In all the times they’d been in each other’s company, Jack had always seemed at least a little bit irritated.
"You're running errands for Kasumi now?"
She snorted. "I owed her one. Said we'd be even if I found you."
Liara had to ask, because honestly anything was better than talking about their current plight. "You owed her one?"
Jack sighed. "Back in London, she came down with a bunch of marines. Helped protect two of my kids when their unit got surrounded."
"Oh," Liara said. "Are they all right?"
"Yeah. Kahlee’s still there, watching over the ones I didn’t bring with me. Some of the kids ended up with broken bones. One lost an eye, but everyone made it through."
"Yeah, me too," Jack replied. Her eyes were far away, but it was obvious just how much she meant it.
Shepard spoke highly of everyone who had served under her during the Collector mission, but admittedly, Liara had never really understood her bondmate's high opinion of Jack. From her profile she seemed crude, violent, and fairly sociopathic; not the type of person Shepard would usually associate herself with. Perhaps she was able to see Jack's potential.
Just another reason why Shepard was such an outstanding leader.
"Never put a team together before..." Jack was saying. "Well, I mean I have, but using a bunch of mercs as cannon fodder while you break in someplace to steal shit doesn't really count. It's just weird caring what happens to everyone, ya know?"
Liara hummed in agreement, though she wasn't sure if Jack’s newfound empathy was quite as weird as the simple fact that they were both there, talking to each other like normal people. From both a background and a personality perspective, she and Jack had about as much in common as an Elcor and a Vorcha.
As they spoke under the driving rain, Jack described the blast from the Crucible as she remembered it. The cheers of the soldiers when the Reapers were suddenly vaporized. The way she worried about all the 'shit' her kids had seen down in London. It was clear that Jack was itching to get back there. The fact that she was here at all said a lot about what Shepard meant to her.
For her part, Liara said very little, though she was thankful for the company. She wondered how Javik, Vega, and Wrex had fared, but it was far easier to believe that they had made it through than Shepard had. After all, they hadn't been on the Citadel.
“Go on,” Jack said after a while. She indicated the biotic barrier surrounding them. “I’m not doing this for my health.”
“Oh... right,” Liara replied, standing. “And thanks.”
If anything seemed capable of making Jack uncomfortable, it was a word like ‘thanks.’ She looked away. “Yeah, well, Shepard would probably get all pissy if she found out I let her girl get struck by lightning.”
That wasn’t exactly what Liara was referring to, but it was probably true enough.
They stomped through the muddy ground together until the body of the Normandy sheltered them from most of the rain, if not the wind. Whenever the lightning flashed, it was possible to see the burnt grass to the rear of the ship, where all the excess heat was still being vented.
“Where did you say Kasumi was?”
Liara swallowed as her feet hit the makeshift ramp. Her loud steps seemed to echo back from the dark and empty shuttlebay.
"She’s still alive, you know," Jack said, stopping at the foot of the ramp, hands in her pockets.
Liara turned, exhaling a long breath. Two years ago she had come face to face with Shepard’s lifeless body. The one person in all the galaxy who seemed like she could do anything, the only one who truly understood the great danger they were all in: dead. How could she ever put into words the way that sight shattered her world? "She died once before."
Jack crossed her arms, choosing to look out at the thunderstorm instead of Liara. "Yeah, well, with Shepard that don’t mean shit."
End of Chapter 1